Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Borowczyk "Marceline"

An excerpt from "Walerian Borowczyk's Heroines of Desire"
by Scott Murray
Borowczyk’s films abound with references to the Genesis myth, to a story written with the sole purpose of justifying the subjugation of women to male will. Eve, the first victim of a male conspiracy, has cleverly been blamed for initiating a Fall in which she played no meaningful part, the true culprit being a jealous male god who was terrified of sharing his power with others.
Borowczyk holds no truck with the it’s-all-Eve’s-fault lie, and his greatest films show the ways in which Eve and her descendants liberate themselves from male rules and constraints.
They do not seek men’s permission to be free, but act fearlessly outside the rules and controls of men. Whether they enjoy sex alone (Thérèse), with a youth (Claudia) or a rabbit (Marceline), kill for money (Margherita) or to maintain beauty (Erzsébert), triumph over kidnap and rape (Marie) or frame men for murder (Mériem), sire a child with one’s father or brother (Lucrezia), let alone prefer to join her true love of the other side of darkness (Fanny), these are cinema’s great Heroines of Desire.
Borowczyk is no puritan and has no interest in judging women, no matter how transgressive their behaviour. As he has said:
Sigmund Freud wrote: the dream is the realization (disguised) of a desire (repressed, held back). For sure, film is a security valve for instincts that are condemned. It filters. The individual reveals himself outwardly, releases himself and hurts no one. He identifies with what he sees, kills via an intermediary and lives an experience through the cinema.
Ordinary people react well. They have no need to carry a mask.

Cast: Gaëlle Legrand (Marceline [Caïn]); Assane Fall [Pétrus], France Rumilly [Madame Caïn], Yves Gourvil [Monsieur Caïn], Lisbeth Arno [Floka]; Françoise Queré, Ahmed Mazoouz.
Synopsis: Early last century, Marceline Caïn (Gaëlle Legrand) spends all her available time with her pet rabbit, enjoying intimate moments together on the lawn. Marceline's bourgeois parents, annoyed by their inability to control her wild behaviour (she even eats salad with her hands!), trick her into eating the casseroled rabbit for dinner. Later that night, Marceline goes to visit the local delivery boy, Pétrus (Assane Fall), at the abattoir where he works. Marceline loses her virginity in the sheep pens, passing out at the sight of her own blood. Pétrus wrongly believes he has killed her and hangs himself, only to realize his error just before he expires. Marceline returns to the house and cuts her parents' throats. In a convent home for girls, she delights the other inmates with her macabre story.

This is the second time Borowczyk adapted a short story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, here “Le Sang de l'Agneau” (“The Blood of the Lamb”).
The references to lambs begin with the opening scene, the teenage Marceline Caïn (Gaëlle Legrand) buying two kilos of gigot from a delivery boy, Pétrus (Assane Fall). As he strokes her breasts, he remarks, “I don't kill the lambs … Goodbye my curly little lamb. See you soon.”
This link between sex and death, poetically dealt with via white cats and shrouds in “Margherita”, here in “Marceline” finds truly shocking expression.
In brilliant sunshine, Marceline takes Souci, her white rabbit, out onto the vast green lawn of her parents' home, Les Risseaux (“The Streams”). But she frets when Souci runs too near the slope down to the cascading creek. “Come here”, she calls, and the white rabbit darts in between her squatting legs, nestling in her undergarments. “Stay under there. You are safe, dear one.”
In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll writes:
[T]he hot day made her feel very sleepy […] a white rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. […] She ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
It is difficult not to equate Carroll's hole in the ground (which is imagined by Alice and, therefore, hers) with Marceline's vagina. Irregardless, both girls are led on a weird and wonderful adventure, with dramatic climax, by a white rabbit on a hot summer's day.
As Marceline starts to undress, she shoos Souci away: “Go, go. I have to undress now and if you look at me I'll be embarrassed.” A discreet Souci hides behind a white lace umbrella, lying open on the lawn.
Marceline then lies naked on the sun-drenched grass, gently stoking her breasts and calling out Souci's name.
Seated at the piano inside the house, Madame Caïn (France Rumilly) sings a song (atrociously), while calling the maid, Floka (Lisbeth Arno), an “imbecile” and imperiously issuing instructions on how to cook the meal.

Oblivious to domestic dramas within the house, Marceline guides Souci between her thighs to the “hole under the hedge”. She grips her breasts in ecstasy.
While Gaëlle Legrand's performance is indisputably one of the finest in Borowczyk, one is tempted to say it is also one the bravest. But such praise actually contains within it the pejorative seed of the patronizing male. Why shouldn't an actress interpret with joy and fearlessness what others pigeonhole as controversial or difficult?
Marceline speaks to her rabbit:
You shouldn't run around so much. Rabbits tire so easily. Their hearts are as small as a drop of water. Don't tire yourself. It is Floka who doesn't like you. She showed me the heart of a rabbit.
Again there is that connection between sex and death.
How sweet you are, my little rabbit. Do you know why I called you Souci? Because you resemble a white flower that runs across the grass.
The rabbit, which has been nibbling away sensuously, starts to move away.
Where are you off to?
Marceline holds Souci to her face and kisses him.
Ah, I understand. You want to kiss me for the name I've given you.
She puts the rabbit back between her legs.
Let's not talk any more. Don't ask questions.
Marceline clearly imagines that the rabbit has a consciousness, just as does Lewis Carroll.
Soon after, Marceline reaches orgasm, despite Floka's repeated calling her to lunch. Whereas Ifany (Hassan Fale) and Clarissa (Pascale Rivault) stop making love at every interruption in La Bête, Marceline places herself beyond bourgeois rules.
Don't be frightened. We have our little secret. You mustn't tell anybody.
While “Marceline” may shock and disturb people on a variety of levels, it is to this point one of utmost enchantment, one of the sunniest sequences in all of Borowczyk.
Marceline finally arrives at the lunch table - via a window rather than a door, for which she is harshly castigated - and sits down to lunch. But she is immediately sent away to wash her hands.
In her bedroom, she smells and licks her hands, remembering sexual pleasure, just as many a teenager has refused to wash his or her fingers for days after first touching a partner's sex. Even if Borowczyk's phantasms sometimes seem far away from everyday lives, even dreams, there is always at the core a connection with most spectators' lives.
At lunch, Monsieur Caïn (Yves Gourvil) and his wife, who epitomize the nouveau bourgeoisie, continue to berate their daughter for what they see as appalling manners and lack of respect.
Disturbingly, Borowczyk cuts from Monsieur Caïn's “You should show an unlimited respect for your mother. It's your mother who feeds and clothes you” (yet another attempt at bought affection) to men cutting up lamb carcasses at an abattoir. This is Georges Franju territory, another of the great surrealists and a contemporary of Borowczyk.
Prior to dinner, Marceline suspects something is wrong when she finds Souci's cage is empty. She searches the creek-bank, but he is not there.
Before moving to the dining table, Marceline's father tries to calm her:
On such a beautiful day, we decided to take him down to the pine trees so he could play around. You can catch him up after the meal.
This is perverse game of offering false hope reminds one of Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean) in Goto, l'île d'amour, where he pretends to Glossia (Ligia Branice) that he will take a letter to her lover, knowing he is already dead.
A casserole is then brought to the dinner table. “Lamb cacciatore”, Monsieur announces. Floka and the Caïns try hard not to laugh. “To Marceline we'll give a big juicy piece”, Monsieur adds.
As tears begin to flow down Marceline's face (in one of the most harrowing of many such close-ups in Borowczyk), Madam Caïn whispers, “I think it is time to tell her.” Monsieur takes over:
My dear little girl, your mother and I have given this much reflection and we have come to the conclusion that you are no longer of an age to play with a rabbit … a little rabbit. [He laughs.] Therefore, we have acted in a way that will stop you from ever seeing that stupid beast again. That's normal, don't you think? We believe we have acted in your best interest, it's the best solution. The thing you have eaten with such gusto [laughs], that meat … tender and well-cooked … that will remain a memorable memory ...
Monsieur Caïn starts cackling, his wife and Floka joining in, till his spectacles fall onto his plate. When Marceline gets up and leaves without saying a word, a piece of rabbit cupped in her hands, her father adds denunciatorily, “She's a girl without a heart!”
This is a very black scene, one of the harshest condemnations of the French bourgeoisie on film. To imitate a hack journalist, “It makes Claude Chabrol look like an apologist for the middle class!”
Some may find it descends too far into caricature, and Borowczyk appears to make no attempt to give the Caïns and Floka any humanity, any “reasons” (in the Jean Renoir sense). But one cannot deny the extraordinary power of the scene, in the self-satisfied and monstrously cruel way these parents go about interfering in their child's sexuality.
The moment when the mother breaks into a vulgar laugh after Marceline has taken her first mouthful of rabbit is absolutely chilling. It is hard to imagine a greater psychological cruelty visited on a child by a parent (unknowing cannibalism of one's beloved), yet parents interfere in the sexual pursuits of children all the time as if it is their right to control another person's expressions of desire. It all leads nowhere good, and the brutal consequences of that repression in this film are, on a metaphoric level, in no way exceptional.

Marceline and Souci. Marceline is perfectly entitled to show more affection for a rabbit than her parents, and her acts of rebellion are those of someone asking that she be allowed to love where and how she finds it.
In her room, Marceline tenderly puts the piece of the rabbit she has taken from the dinner table in a box. She then waits for her parents to go to sleep; excited by curtailing their child's sex life, they are now happily indulging in their church-approved one.
Later that night, Marceline, half-naked under a shawl, climbs out through a window (again) and makes her way to the abattoir.
Arriving fully dressed, she pauses to put on lipstick and rouge up her cheeks. She does not hear Pétrus sneak up behind her:
What are you looking for? Answer me. Are you alive or dead?
I've come to see you. Listen, I really want to see the lambs you are going to kill.
Come along. The lambs are less white and beautiful than you … but their blood will be excited when they look in your cruel eyes.
Pétrus yanks off her shawl, and Marceline stands by a gated pen full of sheep, only hours from slaughter. As Pétrus moves under a ladder, his voice reverberates with an eerie echo, as if not quite real.
The young lady is now in a trap, in the hands of a Negro and the Negro will hang on to her. You will have to be kind to the Negro or the Negro will cut your throat and blood will spray so high it will hit the ceiling. […] I am a butcher. The greatest killer of sheep there is. The others are proud of me.
But at night aren't you just the watchman?
Angered by her emasculating remark (watchman not butcher), Pétrus rushes towards Marceline.
“I'm here to kill lambs”, he yells.
He grabs her and, opening the gate, pushes her into the crowded pen.
Leave me … leave me. [He rips off part of her clothes. Sheep scatter.] Do you want to play at being a butcher at this time of night? And you want to do it with me?
It's always the hour to be a butcher. When you've been waiting a long time to do it, it excites you even more.
Pétrus pushes her onto the straw-covered ground and strips her naked. He then stands and tosses aside his belt, with a knife attached; several sheep sniff it suspiciously.
Borowczyk then cuts to Marceline on her knees, bent forward over a sheep pinned in the corner of the pen. (36) Pétrus approaches and enters her from behind. Her scream of pain is heard over a shot of a 'mother' sheep looking serenely over her flock. The image has the most striking and powerful religious connotations (as, of course, does the term “blood of the lamb”).
Borowczyk then cuts back to Pétrus vigorously fucking Marceline, while all the time ranting:
You are a white sheep, in the hands of a black butcher. As you know, the job of a butcher is to make the blood flow, but you also know it's not such a terrible thing as it seems because you came of your own free will, alone, without fear, at night looking for the black butcher who was not thinking of you, who was asleep, and you awoke him, and now you must have faith in him, the black butcher, who won't hurt you, I promise.
That is pure écriture feminine, in style and content, yet spoken by an uneducated working-class male. Marceline and Pétrus then jointly reach orgasm, an event so unlikely in this context as to make one gasp in disbelief.
The entire scene is profoundly disturbing, not only in its explicit linking the slaughtering of a sheep and a girl losing her virginity.
It is curious, though, that many critics, including Tom Milne, claim Marceline is raped, when she is clearly not. This is one of countless cases where people fantasize about what is on the Borowczyk screen.
Marceline goes to the abattoir with the clear intention of having sex with Pétrus. And though he is extremely rough with her at the start, she in part provokes that by making the emasculating accusation of “watchman”.
Far more revealing, however, is the way Marceline calmly gets ready for being penetrated, patiently adjusting her knees in the straw until she has attained the perfect position. Unbeknownst to Pétrus, he is being used as a sex object to deflower her. (He has other rôles to play as well, but as yet there are undisclosed.)
As Pétrus then rests, Marceline staggers up a ladder to the hayloft, where she passes out after looking at the hand which has touched the blood between her thighs, the blood of the lamb. When Pétrus later climbs up and sees her, he thinks she is dead and hangs himself.
Marceline is awoken by his dying screams, climbs down and sees him dangling. Pétrus calls out plaintively, “Save me. You're alive”, but she ignores him. Instead, she collects her clothes, his butcher's cap and knife-belt, and leaves.
At home, at 3 am, she cuts the throats of her parents with Pétrus' knife, blood spurting everywhere and hitting several objects, including a photograph. It is extraordinarily gruesome and a poetic inversion of Pétrus boast to Marceline that “the Negro will cut your throat and blood will spray so high it will hit the ceiling”.
The blood-splashed Marceline then neatly covers her parents with a white sheet, places Pétrus' cap on the bed and tosses the knife to the floor. The police will inevitably conclude he committed suicide out of guilt over committing the murders.
The film ends at an orphanage (the Orphelinat Providence), where, after lights out, Marceline puts the box (with the rabbit remains?) on her night stand, just before the other homeless girls rush over to her:
Listen, tell us that story.
That one that ends at three in the morning.
No, tell us another one.
“Look,” Marceline intercedes, “I'll tell you the story of the 'Le Sang de l'Agneau', but you know it already”
Yes, but we like it. Tell us again.
The story of love and death.
“Listen,” Marceline begins, “once upon a time there was a rabbit called Souci. He was white, soft like a pillow, and had red ears that reflected the sun. One summer day … torridly …”
As the girls lean forward, their heads touching Marceline's in a tender moment of sisterhood, the mass of collective hair forms a feminine triangle.
An obvious first reading is that the now orphaned Marceline is recounting her bizarre life to fellow inmates.
A post-modern alternative is that Marceline is retelling a short story she has already read, placing herself in the narrative. After all, the story she starts to tell, “Le Sang de l'Agneau”, has the same title as de Mandiargues' short story, and she the same name as its heroine. Unlike the rest of “Marceline”, the orphanage sequence is not period-specific; it could be happening after 1946, when de Mandiargues published his story.
However, by far the most beautiful and poignant reading is the probability that Marceline has invented the whole gruesome tale as a way of explaining why she, like other girls, is now parentless.
This explains the ludicrously caricatured portrayal of the parents, Marceline being deflowered by a “Negro”, the puzzling écriture feminine of Pétrus' long rant, the unrealistic joint climaxing, and so on. All are consistent with being imagined by a lonely teenage girl.
Thus, out of a seemingly-shocking story of sex and death that would have made Georges Bataille sit up with delight comes an uplifting, poetic story of one girl's ability to overcome personal loss through the enchantment of storytelling.
“Marceline”, then, is the work of the same genius that created the short film Renaissance, and yet another of his masterpieces about the transformative power of the human spirit.
Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ends:
Lastly, she pictured […] how she would gather about her other children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all the simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.

Until I see the following I cannot comment on whether it bears any family resemblance to Borowczyk's ostensibly "progressive" values, or whether, instead, it deserves to be classified in the chilling terms of my earlier post on posthuman sexuality i.e. "Carl Tanzler." It stars Charlotte Rampling though, with prosthetic makeup by none other than simian specialist Rick Baker!
A Darwinian Love Story: Max Mon Amour and the Zoocentric ...
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Amour is a perverse, surreal comedy of manners that defends bestiality as a legitimate form of love, comparable to human love. - Similar pages

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